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Good ol' witch hunt 

Praise be to me. Praise be to my intelligence; my asymmetrical looks, which in some other cultures might be considered attractive; my humor; my gift with words. Praise be to my editors. Praise be to this building, which shelters us and provides ample space for our creative genius. Praise be to last week’s issue. Praise be to the semi-colon in the third paragraph on page 32. Praise be to the steaming pile of dog (I hope) excrement I stepped in on the sidewalk on my way to work. Praise be to—

What’s that you say? Is my self-indulgence a turn-off for you? I suppose it’s true that such self love is generally conducted in the privacy of a person’s own home or hotel room for a reason. It doesn’t make for very intellectually stimulating viewing. Also, you could go blind.

But that didn’t stop the Atascadero City Council from turning a recent meeting into a 2 1/2-hour cheerleading campaign in which they patted themselves and each other on the back for the following reasons: 4th of July festivities, a fire hero, a new hotel, new bocce ball courts, something about the library, something about local officials receiving state training, Walmart (smiley face!), and the Charles Paddock Zoo! We’re all just so gosh-darned happy our gosh-darned cheeks are aching from gosh-darned smiling! Happy, happy, happy! Joy, joy, joy!

I kept waiting for someone to raise their hand and say, “You know we live in Atascadero, right?” But it wouldn’t have been polite to interrupt their impromptu celebration of themselves by insisting that they get back to the business of, you know, actually making decisions and running the city.

I thought about leaving around hour two, but that would have required standing up—and what do I look like, an Olympic athlete? In retrospect, I’m glad I fell asleep rather than leaving, because around hour three things took an unexpectedly dark turn. Think Salem witch trials, but less culture and more low, low prices. Not a pretty picture. After an endless stream of meaningless niceties—several of which were three months old and trotted out anyway for Sept. 11—the council got down to the business of responding to a lawsuit filed against the city by four Atascadero residents to prevent Walmart from barging into town, bringing with it cheap, mass-produced goods. The talk mostly went like this: What word would we use to describe how we feel about this lawsuit? Are we discouraged or frustrated? Personally, I feel frustrated, but you look more irritated. Well, either way we won’t back down. Like that song. Y’know, about not backing down and stuff.

And that’s when Councilmember Jerry Clay decided to pull a page from thankfully deceased Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy’s book and insist they read the names of the four citizens who filed the lawsuit. Y’know, just in case someone in the audience was curious. Maybe someone would try to change their minds? Or maybe take a page from the Spanish Inquisition and toss them on the rack to extract a confession of anti-Atascaderoan feelings? Or we could be all-American about it and just waterboard them.

Now, as far as I can tell, the Atascadero Four—who I won’t name in this column because unlike the Atascadero City Council, I don’t believe in whipping up mobs against people for crimes less heinous than animal abuse or being a party pooper or smacking your gum while you talk—didn’t actually commit any crime, didn’t break any rule. Their only infraction seems to be having a vision of Atascadero that doesn’t correspond to the image being promoted by the powers that be. Which is kinda what democracy is about. Your ideal government, city, state, country probably doesn’t look like mine. (Mine is landscaped by lakes of Pabst and governed by parrots in powdered wigs.) But as long as we both care, and are willing to use legal-if-not-always-ethical means of pursuing our vision, well, the system works.

But when a ham-fisted majority considers bullying a minority into compliance, the entire system breaks down. It’s not about the quality of your ideas or arguments so much as the level of fear you inspire in your opposition, the size and zeal of your mob. And the Atascadero City Council had its mob foaming at the mouth by the time Clay decided to read the four names of the people standing between Atascadero and the Nirvana that can only come when you’re buying mass-produced socks made overseas from a 40-year-old cashier making minimum wage and wearing a blue smock with a happy face button.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe Councilman Clay was hoping he would identify those people so their fellow citizens could give them a pat on the back for caring about their city. Or bid them a friendly, small-town “good day” when they passed each other on the street. And I kinda hope I’m wrong on this one. Because the alternative to being wrong is that the Atascadero City Council used a government meeting as an opportunity to sic an angry group on four people who committed no crime in retaliation for the fact that they filed a lawsuit against the city. Which is petty, mean-spirited, childish, and a waste of everyone’s time.

I’m sure Clay would be the first to insist that he intended no harm when he read those names aloud, just like I’m sure Lewis Libby would insist he intended no harm when he disclosed the identity of undercover CIA operative Valerie Plame. The question is: Would anyone be naive enough to believe him? ∆

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